Indian Premier League gets underway in UAE

The 2020 Indian Premier League T20 cricket tournament got underway on Saturday in the United Arab Emirates, after a six-month delay due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Two matches were played on the opening weekend. In the first, the Chennai Super Kings beat reigning champions the Mumbai Indians at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi. On Sunday, the Delhi Capitals beat Kings XI Punjab at Dubai International Stadium.

Organisers at the Board of Control for Cricket in India and the host Emirates Cricket Board are running a pared-down version of the usually glitzy and spectacular tournament. All matches are taking place behind closed doors for now, although BCCI president Saurav Ganguly has said fans could be admitted in the later stages, with the three stadiums that are hosting matches open at up to 30-per-cent capacity. There are no cheerleaders this year and there was no opening ceremony.

The opening matches were the culmination of a long journey for the league. It is the third time since the competition’s launch in 2008 that it is taking place outside India – this also happened in 2009 and 2014 due to clashes with India’s general elections. This year’s move was more complicated given the need to manage the Covid-19 risk. Participants and stakeholders, including teams, organisers and the host broadcaster Star India, are operating within ‘bio-secure bubbles’ covering hotels, stadiums and television production facilities, with limited interaction with anyone outside the bubbles for the duration of the tournament, which runs until its final on November 10.

Australian and English cricketers flew to the UAE last week from the UK, where their national teams had been playing one-day internationals, wearing hazmat suits. There had been uncertainty over whether Australian and English players would be able to take part in the tournament from its start, due to their late arrival in the UAE. The BCCI was able to negotiate a shorter quarantine period for them of 36 hours, instead of the six days that other arriving players have had to serve.

The organisers have cleared a series of other hurdles to get this year’s league started. Several star players pulled out of the tournament citing personal reasons. There have been positive Covid-19 tests among some participants, including 13 positive tests within the Chennai Super Kings team camp and one within Star India’s production team.

The positive Covid-19 tests and an increase in virus cases in Abu Dhabi in recent weeks led to delays in publishing the schedule for the tournament, creating last-minute concerns about whether it would go ahead.

Title sponsor Vivo, the Chinese mobile phone maker, withdrew from this year’s tournament due to tensions between China and India around a territorial dispute in the Himalayas. Indian fantasy sports operator Dream11 filled the title sponsor void this year, although Vivo is expected to return next year.

There has been a flurry of sponsorship dealmaking in recent weeks as teams sought to fill rosters ahead of the delayed season start. This has notably included newcomer sponsors from industrial sectors not previously represented in the league such as educational technology, disinfectant brands, contactless dining services, and pharmacological brands. First-time sponsors include fantasy sports companies My11Circle and MyTeam11, edtech company Unacademy, accounting app Khatabook, and shopping delivery service Dunzo.

Other deals announced in the couple of weeks before the tournament started included cocoa-malt drinks brand Nestlé Milo and the Royal Challengers Bangalore, laminate company Stylam and Kings XI Punjab, online grocery store Bigbasket and the Rajasthan Royals, and Astral Adhesives and Delhi Capitals. Electronics brand boAt announced it would be partnering with six teams this year – Mumbai Indians, Chennai Super Kings, Kings XI Punjab, Kolkata Knight Riders, Delhi Capitals, and Royal Challengers Bangalore.

Streaming platform Disney Plus Hotstar, a division of Star India, has 13 sponsors for its coverage of the league this year. Dream11 and energy drink Boost are the top-tier co-presenting sponsors. In the second tier of associate sponsors are: Ace23, Acko, the Association of Mutual Funds in India, Flipkart, Great Learning, HDFC Bank, Khatabook, Kingfisher Calendar, Maruti Suzuki, MX Player, and Swiggy.

This year’s tournament has been reported to have media-rights deals in more than 120 countries outside India. Star has the global rights for the league from 2018 to 2022 under a deal with the BCCI. The broadcaster sells the rights to other broadcasters in territories outside its own footprint. Within India, Star’s coverage is in nine languages including English and Hindi, and across a range of national and regional television channels, as well as the Hotstar streaming platform. Overseas media-rights partners include pay-television broadcaster Sky in the UK and Ireland, and pay-television broadcaster Foxtel in Australia. One notable territory where there is no media-rights deal is Pakistan.

BCCI president Saurav Ganguly said IPL broadcasters were expecting higher viewership for the tournament than usual. Reuters reported that he said broadcasters “are actually expecting the highest rating of IPL this season because they believe if (people) don’t turn up in the ground, they will be actually watching on their television sets…There is a positive in everything.”

This year’s IPL was originally to start on March 29 in India, but was postponed as the pandemic took hold in the country. The postponement of the T20 World Cup in Australia, originally due to take place in October and November, opened up a window for the IPL to take place.